Re-Visiting the Nugent-Hopkins Question

It’s still early. Four points in seven games are not terrible. But although it may be early in the NHL season, it’s not early in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ season. Between the high tempo practices and high-intensity games during the World Cup of Hockey, RNH had plenty of time to get up to game speed.

He performed reasonably well at the World Cup, scoring a goal and three points in three games for Team North America. It’s hard to nit-pick when the team is performing as well as the Oilers are right now. Winning always covers up a multitude of wrongs. But Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is pencilled in as a second-line centre. Is he really that?

What Kind of Player is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

When RNH was drafted first overall in 2011, it was something of a no-brainer. He was the best player available. His immediate competition included Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau. Good players, but not elite. You couldn’t say there was a superior choice. Was it a weak draft overall? To some degree, yes, but that’s not his fault. He has the second-most career points of his draft year.

RNH isn’t the biggest guy. He’s been labelled ‘soft’ (not entirely fair). He doesn’t really play with an edge and he won’t throw the body around. He’s a finesse guy, a playmaker. He should be a top-six forward based on his skill set and he’s responsible defensively.

RNH has played in 320 NHL games, scoring 77 goals and 226 points. Those are decent numbers. Are they elite level numbers? (This is his sixth season, so we’ll compare his first five in the league). Sidney Crosby had 506 points in his five seasons, but he’s on another planet. Jonathan Toews amassed 324 points. Could that be the comparable ceiling for a guy like Nugent-Hopkins? Not Art Ross type numbers, but a player that brings more to the table than just points.

When ranking all centermen from RNH’s rookie season up until now, Nuge is 32nd in points, putting him in the same company with guys like Ryan Johansen, Valtteri Filppula and Frans Nielson. All things are not equal, though, because Nugent-Hopkins has played on bad teams and dealt with a lot of injuries. But if we’re looking solely at points, is he a legitimate number two guy? We know RNH will never have to be a top-line centreman as long as Connor McDavid is on the team. He was forced into the role at times, and it probably wasn’t where he is best suited.

Where Does Ryan-Nugent Hopkins Fit In?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

For Nuge to be most effective in the top-six, he has to develop his playmaking skills and his faceoff prowess. Do the Oilers project him to eventually slot into the third line shutdown role? Let’s look at the best teams in the league and their usual second line centremen. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Evgeni Malkin. The San Jose Sharks have Logan Couture. The Chicago Blackhawks have Artem Anisimov. The Los Angeles Kings have Jeff Carter. The Montreal Canadiens have Tomas Plekanec. The Nashville Predators have Mike Ribeiro. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Tyler Johnson. The Washington Capitals have Evgeny Kuznetsov.

When you look at all those names, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t out of place in terms of point totals over the course of their careers (with some exceptions). How much can be expected of a guy like RNH, though? Last season, Crosby led all centermen with 85 points. Nugent-Hopkins was ranked 84th with 34 points, but he only played in 55 games due to injury. His best season statistically came in 2014-15 when he played 76 games scoring 24 goals and 56 points. That put him 25th among his fellow centermen.

For a second-line centerman, that’s a fine position to be in. He was in the company of guys like Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron, Derick Brassard and Ryan O’Reilly. That’s where he figures to be in a season where he plays at least 75 games. Is that satisfactory for your second-best guy? I’d say yes. He’s off to a slow start this season, and obviously, that’s concerning. But what has to be noted is his play without the puck, and his ability to set guys up.

What Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Become?

(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Most people hate the plus/minus stat (especially those in the analytics community) but it’s there and it exists for a reason. Over the course of his career, RNH is a -31. Now granted, that’s on a bad team. And he was playing over his head at times, against competition he probably shouldn’t have had to face. But if we delve into the fancy stats, RNH’s closest comparison is John Tavares, who is viewed as one of the better centermen in the league. But he also compares to Sam Gagner, once seen as a lynchpin for the Oilers now at the age of 27 he’s on his third team in four years with no long-term contract.

Gagner was a victim of horrible player-development in Edmonton, and never quite lived up to expectations. Let’s hope that doesn’t end up being the case with RNH. He has the benefit of living under McDavid’s shadow, keeping him out of the spotlight. If Nugent-Hopkins ends up in the same category as a Tavares, or Duchene, or even Bryan Little, that’s going to be huge for the Oilers.

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But he’s still got a long way to go. If he can be counted on to be a stalwart defensively, and still chip in points, the Oilers have themselves a gem. He set up Benoit Pouliot twice last night in the Oilers’ big win over the Washington Capitals. Who he plays with is going to be key as well. He can develop into an incredible playmaker but he needs guys who can finish. The jury might still be out on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in terms of what kind of player he is, and what role will make him thrive, but he appears to be on the right track. It’s still early.